Tuscany is known for its lush, sun-drenched pastures and quaint medieval villages, and of course for being one of Italy’s finest culinary hotspots. One reason why it is so highly regarded is because it is home to the gold dust of the cookery world: truffles. This time of year sees the height of the truffle-hunting season in Tuscany, so we thought we’d ask Luca Ciaffarafa, the head chef at Grand Hotel Continental in Siena, to tell us more about this culinary delicacy.
Truffles are unique for their particularly distinct aroma and taste, and they are also very rare. Their growth depends on the climate, time of year and surrounding vegetation, making them tricky to harvest.
There are many kinds of truffles, from the white to the black, which vary according to the season. The white truffle is the most precious one with its extraordinary aroma. It is found in several regions of Italy such as Piedmont, Tuscany and Umbria. White truffles grow in the Crete Senesi (‘Senese clays’) to the south of Siena, a region awash with rolling hills and verdant woodland.
Truffles grow from sweet limestone soils, when the surrounding vegetation has an appropriate root system, like that of oak trees. Some people use pigs when foraging for truffles, but nowadays more often than not the truffle hunt is carried out with trained dogs that smell the fungus’s tuber. They are able to identify the truffle underground from the scent; they start to dig and the “hunter” himself stops the dog before it actually digs up the truffle.
They can be used in the kitchen in a wide variety of recipes. The white is mostly used uncooked, and many prefer it grated on to a fried egg which enhances the flavour and aroma. It’s also a spectacular flavouring for fresh pasta, meat, cheeses and honey, or for blending with olive oil.
In Italy the festivals are mostly in November when the most famous white truffle is harvested, or in March when there the “Marzuolo” black truffle flourishes. Near Siena there is the festival at San Giovanni D’Asso on the second and third weekend of November.
The hotel arranges for guests to experience truffle hunting in the valleys south of Siena. Val D’Orcia is world famous for the quality of its truffles, especially of the white truffle, which grows in October and November. Guests can follow the dogs in the hunt over the countryside grounds and see the dogs in action! Then, after all the foraging, the hunters are rewarded with a delicious truffle tasting lunch.
A special thanks to Nathalie Beaugonin and Luca Ciaffarafa at Grand Hotel Continental.